It's the difference between pulling a rabbit out of a hat and pulling a rabbit out of your ass.
"The Illusionist" totters on a precipice not unlike the one the magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) tries to balance between himself and his audience in 1900 Vienna. It's the line between belief and disbelief. Eisenheim maintains belief, but director Neil Burger falls victim to disbelief. For one thing, it took me a good hour to stop these words from ringing in my head: "Jessica. Biel. Serious. Actress."
Eisenheim must keep his audience believing that there's a strong possibility his illusions are real. Like any magician knows, if an audience immediately understands the trick, the show won't sell. Early on, he makes an orange tree grow on stage and has a handkerchief disappear from a box only to reappear carried by two butterflies. This wins the interest of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who invites Eisenheim to do a private performance, which the illusionist gladly accepts because Leopold's fianc�, Sophie (Jessica Biel), is Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart.
Eisenheim embarrasses Leopold, leading the vengeful prince to call on his lackey, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), to shut Eisenheim down no matter what. But, Uhl, a man torn between his loyalty to the prince and his sense of justice, delays long enough for Eisenheim to develop his best trick yet and possibly bring the Prince down in the process.
Eisenheim furthers his reputation by animating ghosts, and here's where the doves fly from Burger's pockets. As the illusions become increasingly unbelievable, special effects take over and the film slowly grows distant from its setting, making the audience feel like Bill Gates at a Pong convention. The audience of that era is supposed to believe that Eisenheim may have supernatural powers. We must believe it also. We don't because we see the wizard behind the curtain.
The accomplishment here would have been keeping the audience convinced that Eisenheim's tricks could actually be performed. The feverish final revelation in which Uhl figures everything out, in an editing frenzy more reminiscent of an acid flashback, is a cop-out, as predictable as it is unfair, since it relies much too heavily on Burger's emphasis on no illusion being beyond Eisenheim's power. What Burger fails to understand is that this undermines the film's credibility.
It's the difference between pulling a rabbit out of a hat and pulling a rabbit out of your ass. One whiff of "The Illusionist" and you'll realize that the whole film is pretty much a dirty trick.
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